noisy dollops

Tom Paulin – The Secret Life of Poems

The critical labours of Tom Paulin have always invested themselves in the orality of poetry, the poem as speech-act and as a matter of soundings. As his 'Sentence Sound', from The Wind Dog, confirms:

here poems are often put together
out of fricatives labials and peachy vowels
here prose is stretched or polished
so it doesn't try imitate
the clearness of that blank windowpane

In the centre-piece of that collection, Paulin, in his patented sidelong wry-mouthed manner, edges towards an enunciation of the aesthetic:

walking the plank
we turn the bridge into a thunderbox
blocks of dead sound
drop bock bock bock
into the air
as though something formal and dreadful
is both happening and about to happen
on this wooden platform
sound is always ahead of itself
at least sound that has an echo
and a living skin of air
ambient air
around it
so sound is both Being and Becoming...

Paulin's reading is alive to the acoustic nuances of poetic language. It adapts, with an almost miraculous elasticity, to the essence of experience. It shucks off the sclerotic stiffening of print, of Standard English; not to mention that of the iambic pentameter. And, by implication, it raises the banner for certain forms of political dissidence, existing beyond the pale of State surveillance. Paulin's fascination with the unassuming subversions of, say, Emily Dickinson or Christina Rossetti is of a piece with such a coded radical politics. He scrutinises poetry for the aural vestiges of dissent, hinted at in a line break or smuggled in the priest's hole of a caesura. 'Being and Becoming' precisely figures as a process resistant to political subornation – one too slippery and intangible, like a blob of mercury, for the State to lay its hands on. If poetry 'rides on its own melting' (in Robert Frost's phrase, one greatly suggestive to Paulin), it cannot petrify into propaganda or langue de bois.

Paulin distrusts elegance and polish, favours gaucherie - “..the sentences gawky or a tad misshapen – spelt wrong or babu even...” - and the veering self-corrections of improvised speech. It streaks into our consciousness as a jazz free-form, airily untouched by the taint of public discourse, yet instinct with socio-historical forces nonetheless. Paulin's criticism takes the historicity of a poem as a given. He can unpack a modest lyric until it yields up a bounty of meaning local to its composition. "It is the acoustic adhesiveness of words and patterns of sound that fascinates me..."

From his essay collection Minotaur onwards, Paulin has assembled his own counter-canon, poets to whose work he has continually returned: Milton, Marvell, Clare, Dickinson, Rossetti, Hopkins, Bishop, inter alia. Each of these poets represents an attempt to work outside the mainstream of literary convention. Each, in their way, hymns a Non serviam through their poetry, rejecting the fixed, the lapidary, the orthodox. Paulin sees a kind of redemptive hope in their nonconformist Protestantism And detects the promise of the foundation of what Les Murray calls a 'vernacular republic' in their poetic example.

The 'critical donnée', Paulin explains in the introduction to his collection Crusoe's Secret, “..is less a piece of obscure knowledge than finding something hidden in the daylight, but that process is picky, sometimes obsessive, a matter of trusting hunches and intuitions, and weighing particular words that for reasons that aren't immediately apparent seem to stick.” A critical reading by Paulin of a poem can be an exhilarating business, as when he somehow manages to divine from a seemingly innocuous concordance of sounds a whole system of allusion. Poetry is a whispering gallery, even the briefest lyric utterance opening out to the full amplitude of history at the touch of Paulin's insistent interpretative sensibility.

'Trusting hunches and intuitions' makes for a criticism whose governing principle seems often to be the wild surmise. Yet Paulin, for all that he can exasperate, follows through, generally with more than qualified success. His sensitivity to the fine meshings of sound and meaning tends to have him pursuing a hunch almost to the point of the argument's collapse, as in his dense searching engagement with Keats's 'To Autumn': “The hedge-cricket I take to be a figure for members of the radical underground..” The sceptically-inclined will go no further. But Paulin gnaws away at these glimpsed suggestions with such brio, that you do get used to his antic swerving from one reference-point to another. The restlessness of his critical imagination dares us not to settle too easily into complacency, into an unreasoning faith that we know a poem.

The Secret Life of Poems is arranged as a series of short readings: guerilla raids on the articulate. None of the usual book-making apparatus – preface, introduction or notes – yet what Paulin might have written there is embedded in the readings themselves. “Poetry begins in speech,” he begins, “in the skipping rhymes and chants children make up in the playground and the street. It moves from there into the imagination and life of the common people – into rhymes, riddles, traditional songs – and is then sometimes collected – so that it moves from oral tradition, communal memory, into print.” Implied by this, is a narrative of cultural annexation. (Paulin may be dimly recalling Mandelstam's lines “But in books/Much loved, and in children's games I shall rise/From the dead to say the sun is shining.”) The free, metamorphic idyll of oral culture comes, in due process, to be severed from its vital roots and institutionalised: a figure for which would be the Enclosures so lamented by John Clare. The 'printed voice' (in the phrase lifted by Eric Griffiths from Browning's The Ring and the Book) is the medium through which that pristine lightsome energy of spoken poetry can be restored. (Paulin, in The Secret Life of Poems, goes even so far as to write of the 'redemptive nature of metre'.)

Edna Longley, in her Bloodaxe essays Poetry & Posterity, voiced her scepticism of Paulin's habits of mind – tournures d'esprit, if you will – and argued, with a grim persuasiveness, that their idiosyncrasies tended more often than not to show up the confusions in the 'psychological strata of Paulin's imagination'. She dismantles the 'false dichotomy' between oral and written poetry, pointing out, correctly to my mind, that “..the oral-written or vernacular-standard opposition simplifies the intricacies of rhythm, syntax and cadence.” (This latter opposition impoverishes, disastrously, a certain school of Scottish poetry that itself has an unbecoming habit of playing the class card – and now the patriotic card - to deflect any challenging critical debate.) “There are dangers in perpetual dissidence,” Longley argues; and, later, “..his criticism depends on poetic licence being infinitely renewable.”

Paulin's politics are apt to skew his readings – as Edna Longley dryly observed, “It is for Hazlitt scholars to decide whether The Day-Star of Liberty makes Hazlitt sound too much like a contemporary Northern Irish writer who founds his creative and cultural project on those Ulster Presbyterians whom the French Revolution turned into United Irishmen.” His 'ideological pigeon-holing of writers', strident as it is, strikes one as reductionist, and Paulin would do well to soft-pedal his obsessions, to complicate the fraught relationship between private inwardness and the public sphere, lest he make even the delicate wallflower of a poet like Emily Dickinson sound rather absurdly like Rosa Luxemburg.

Paulin the instinctively adversarial bruiser will always have his detractors. The flung-together messiness of his work does seem at times a little too contrived; and his curious, ad hoc, unsystematic apposition between formal and historical modes of interpretation - close reading muddled up with 'noisy dollops' of fact - succeeds only periodically. Yet we wouldn't do without him: Paulin affords a bracing corrective to the inbred phatic chunterings of the university English department. Literary criticism retains its urgency and relevance in his hands.


the high master of aloneness

George Steiner – My Unwritten Books
Unread books nag at us silently from the shelves, but unwritten books?

Authors only reluctantly advertise their failures; and the unwritten book usually remains an itch at the back of the mind. Or else the miscarriage of an idea finds its home in the wastepaper basket and that's that... There might exist embryonic traces of it in the pages of notebooks or correspondence, or the odd dropped drunken aside. Or someone might, unwisely, release a public statement of intent: T.S. Eliot announced a trilogy exploring his ideas of classicism, royalism and Anglo-Catholicism: The School of Donne, The Outline of Royalism and The Principles of Modern Heresy, alas, for Eliot scholars at any rate, never appeared. Who knows, perhaps these works cram the stacks in some Borgesian alternate reality. Borges himself foreworded his Ficciones:

It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books – setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them ... A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man [than Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Butler], I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books.

'The Laborious Madness of George Steiner' might do as the title of one more unwritten book, a huge, lumbering, indexed and cross-indexed critical monograph with footnotes upon footnotes... George Steiner: the cavalier servente of high culture, the last of the Old World intellectuals, elegist of a European civilization embattled by modernity. A generalist and polymath, Steiner confronts the reader today as a paradoxically vital anachronism. Like Isaiah Berlin, he 'founded no school', initiated no new strain in Western intellectual growth. His abiding conviction of the centrality of cultural values, of a vaunted elitism of the spirit, looks awkward when set beside the levelling influences unleashed in the post-war era. His manner smacks a little uneasily of an ancien régime. His prose – its luxuriant periods, its cadenzas of eloquence – is instantly recognizable and, to many, a touch rebarbative in its casual superior assurance. (Its high-toned fruitiness borders on the camp.) Steiner ought to have been born a century or two earlier. You can imagine him enjoying the boon companionship of the Encyclopaedistes, or debating Jansenism with Montaigne in the Tower of the Chateau. Burgeoning technologies like the internet seem only to dismay and confound him.

Modern thought is distinguished from ancient by its cultivation of the 'relative' spirit in place of the 'absolute'. Ancient philosophy sought to arrest every object in an eternal outline, to fix thought in a necessary formula, and the varieties of life in a classification by 'kinds' or genera. To the modern spirit nothing is, or can be rightly known, except relatively and under conditions...

So Walter Pater, writing of Coleridge in 1889. “Now the literary life of Coleridge,” Pater goes on, “was a disinterested struggle against the relative spirit ... he is ever restlessly scheming to 'apprehend the absolute', to affirm it effectively, to get it acknowledged. It was an effort, surely, an effort of sickly thought...” To 'apprehend the absolute' is an ambition that may fairly be ascribed to Steiner; so too his sorrowing hostility towards the 'relative spirit'. Steiner's career – from The Death of Tragedy to Lessons of the Masters – thundered along in Juggernaut-fashion, each work a bold mission-statement, powered by his lust for the Absolute. And precisely because of this, his public reputation has hardened into a kind of mineral intractability, the quaintness of his attitudes open to ridicule: dare one say it, he's almost become a public monument bespattered with pigeon shit. Steiner's awareness of this lends to his later work an odd self-pitying note, regretful and valedictory. He yearns for the prestige of a vanished era. But Terry Eagleton, of all people, called him 'one of the last of the great breed of European humanists,' and the 'great hedonist of ideas'. Informing his work at the deepest levels – thrumming through it like a demonic tattoo – is the barbarism of the twentieth century, and the insoluble problem of reconciling culture and anarchy. That Europe can at one and the same time be the cradle of civilization and the Gehenna that Nazism made of it, torments Steiner. He finds himself the thanatographer of a dying world.

His seminal collection Language and Silence bears most of the thematic hallmarks found in all Steiner's work. Some insights he has worried over for decades. The ambiguous involvement of language and sex is given preliminary notice in his 1963 essay 'Night Words' (reviewing the Olympia Reader, he deplores its imaginative exhaustion, its cheapening of sex) – and what we might term this 'Steinerian problematic' recurs in My Unwritten Books, in a meditation on eros and logos that is disarmingly frank. The Shoah tutored mankind in its own appetite for nihilistic cruelty. Steiner grieves for the waste and unimaginable horror of it – and, to some degree, taunts himself for his marginality to its epicentre, having fled Europe at his father's insistence before the war. Again, the theme chimes throughout the oeuvre. Steiner broods especially on those moments – historical and personal – when language as conveyer of intelligible meaning simply fails. Always, something agonistic pulses somewhere in his work, a threat and a warning.

The memoir Errata revisits the themes, often more candidly and directly than before. With age, Steiner has become distinctly less bullish, readier to admit his vulnerabilities. My Unwritten Books continues this tendency. The great humanist reveals himself to be touchingly human.

“A book unwritten is more than a void,” Steiner begins. “It accompanies the work one has done like an active shadow, both ironic and sorrowful.” The seven chapters of My Unwritten Books are as densely argued and as ripened as anything of Steiner's hitherto. The pieces are by turns essays in admiration and perplexity. The first, 'Chinoiserie', concerns itself with the biochemist and Sinologist Joseph Needham. An extraordinary tribute, in it Steiner confesses his awe at Needham's obsessive industry, his tireless encyclopaedism and, perhaps, the depth of his knowledge of a subject about which Steiner, eurocentrically, can know little if anything. Needham's Science and Civilisation in China was written out of the tradition of the great anatomies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: Robert Burton and Sir Thomas Browne, with all the crazy compendiousness of their work, Needham's intellectual forebears. Steiner seems to have been cowed into humility by the work of this strange, Casaubon-ish man.

Intellectual cowardice – as Steiner would have it – essentially spiked some of these ideas. Others were deemed too raw, with the abashed intimacy that checks, more often than not, self-revelation. Concluding one of the essays, Steiner admits the reason for being unable to write the book: “I did not have the guts.”

'Invidia' – at its mildest, professional jealousy: but in this essay Steiner tells the tale of Cecco d'Ascoli, the contemporary of Dante who tried, and failed, to give the poet of the Divina Commedia a run for his money. Cecco could charitably be described as the nearly man of Italian Renaissance poetry, but – possibly because this master astrologer made the Schoolman's error of casting a horoscope for Jesus – wound up in an inquisitorial auto-da-fé, (graphically, squeamishly contemplated by Steiner)...

The Jewish destiny comes under consideration in the essay 'Zion'. Here, Steiner courts controversy, reflecting on the perennial apartness of the Chosen People and arriving at the thought, warily, that perhaps something genetically immanent in the Jew sets him at odds with history and the world. The origins of anti-semitism are mysteriously bound up, Steiner argues, with the enormous demand made by Yahweh on mankind, to be signally better, to attain an ideal of moral perfection that we find, poor flawed things that we are, to be gratuitous and impossible. Militant Zionism failed, he suggests, because it made of the Jew an ordinary man. Like the bogus 'Philip Roth' in Roth's Operation Shylock, Steiner is a regretful Diasporist, seeing in the 'peregrine' nature of Judaism its true essence: “Nationalism, of which Israel is necessarily emblematic, tribal ingathering, seems to me not only foreign to the inward genius of Judaism and the enigma of its survival. It violates the imperative of the Baal Shem Tov, master of Hassidism: 'The truth is always in exile'. This maxim is my morning prayer.”

Much of My Unwritten Books does seem a remarkable gamble for so reticent a man as Steiner. Discussing the antinomies of the public and the private, he makes this assertion of the indecency of speaking of one's belief (or unbelief):

If there is anything entitled to final privacy, to enclosure in heart and mind, it is surely one's personal faith as it ripens towards the solipsism of death or the dismissal thereof. Publication, in the direct sense of the term, is an irremediable devaluation, a strip-tease of what we call for lack of a better name 'the soul', the quick and core of our labyrinthine being. It enacts, or so I have held, a tawdry paradox: self-violation, a rape of the self.

Steiner prefers to call himself a 'Platonic anarchist', rather than be drawn on his political leanings. The unfathomable interplay between art and religion – the imagining of god – has been a core fascination of Steiner's, and in the same essay, 'Begging the Question', he finally must admit that neither art nor theology bring us a whit nearer to proving the existence or otherwise of a deity. Indeed Steiner writes with 'scrupulous sadness' of his final estrangement from god, stating that his early hesitations and qualifications were the merest sophistry.

“What I have come to feel with compelling intensity,” Steiner all but closes his book, “is the absence of God.” My Unwritten Books is marbled through with such stark confessional turns. It is the furthering of Steiner's career-long project to attempt the examined life. But it also offers the spectacle of Steiner wrestling with titanic self-doubt, as Jacob with his angel. Often moving, always absorbing, it has all the stateliness of thought, the sheer rapturous obsession with the life of the mind, admirers of Steiner look forward to in his work.


eunuchs in a harem

Ronan McDonald - The Death of the Critic

“'The best that has been thought and said' – Matthew Arnold's exalted old credo, long superannuated – devolved to 'Whatever'. If taste governs all, then distinctions melt away, and the jihadist's 'taste in morality' is no worse than mine or yours, and choosing life or choosing death comes down to chacun à son goût.”
-- Cynthia Ozick, 'On Discord and Desire'; The Din in the Head (2006)

The rout of criticism seemed, for a time, almost complete. The university arcanists – addled by the Chinese-box wares of Derrida, Lacan and Foucault – had retreated into self-referential blather, and the book pages of the print media dwindled, and dwindled, to an auxiliary of publishers' marketing departments. 'Bookchat', as Gore Vidal contemptuously termed it, became a white noise of logrolling and mutual self-congratulation. Or the scrape of many axes being ground. The shade of Edmund Wilson flickered and mournfully expired. The Jacobins of the blogosphere let out a whoop of triumph; and the book group metastasised through the cultural life of the land.

And why not? The critic, after all, applies his killjoy instincts to the cramping of creative freedom: he pettifogs and carps, snidely undermines the best efforts of the finest spirits, and generally comports himself as a humourless puritan fault-finder. He is an embittered second-rater, a snippy Pharisee. Of course, the critic deserves to be sidelined – no one likes a sour negativist. The pontiff of this dismal breed was F.R. Leavis, issuing his bulls from Downing College and spoiling literature for generations of undergraduates. Leavis, it was, who insisted on the high seriousness of the literary endeavour, its irrefragable moral dimension – and what fun is that?

Earth-bound, joyless, beside-the-point: so the critic stands condemned as a relic of another age, as hoarily irrelevant today as the Master of the Revels.

All this squares with the low esteem in which the 'expert' is now broadly held. The democratization of culture is held up as an a priori good; and the value-judgment has gone the way of the witch's cantrip. A poem by Charles Bukowski merits serious consideration just as much as a poem by Milton. Evaluative discrimination mocks the principles of egalitarianism; and, as Gore Vidal has it, “Don't knock, boost! was the cry of Warren Harding. To which the corollary was plain: anyone who knocks is a bad person with a grudge... to say that one English sentence might be better made than another is to be a snob, a subverter of the democracy, a Know Nothing enemy of the late arrivals to our shores and its difficult language.” Vidal, elsewhere eulogizing V.S. Pritchett, says: “...an entire generation of schoolteachers and book chatterers now believes that an inability to master English is a sign of intellectual grace, and that a writer like Pritchett is not to be taken seriously because he eschews literary velleities for literary criticism. Madame Verdurin has won the day.” (Literary velleities: as neat and elegant a description of the style and tenor of certain sections of the literary blogosphere as any...)

Certainly, the internet and the matto grosso of the blogosphere have enfranchised readers to the extent that they now can be sure that their views will have an audience, somewhere. Niche tastes are amply catered for. Google is your friend. The essential conservatism of the mainstream press reviews increasingly appears insufficient to the variety of the marketplace. And we live in a social and cultural climate in which people are disinclined to be told what to do or think. (William Skidelsky chews all this over in his piece for Prospect magazine.) The subsequent 'deregulation' of literary studies brings in its train a prickly, agitated parliament: from serious, passionate readers sharing their enthusiasms to amateur scribes seeking to showcase their talents and – maybe, just maybe – catch the eye of the literary editor of a broadsheet newspaper. Yet for every thoughtful, nuanced blog post, there must be a dozen sophomoric tirades. The extraordinarily ugly, ill-tempered response to the work of the critic James Wood shows up in the blogosphere a spleenful incontinence. Wood, for the moment, has been cast as a eunuchoid bully; and has few sympathizers in the cyber-savannah. (One honourable exception: SC of the excellent Un Arbre dans la Ville arts-blog, who has written a number of sane, temperate defenses of Wood's critical practice; identifying what he terms James Wood Neurosis – although it seems to me to tend more toward derangement.) The prevailing atmosphere is less one of Kulturkampf than of an alpha-male dick-swinging contest. All that impotent fluttering in 'mediocrity's columbarium' (Gore Vidal, again).

Ronan McDonald's study The Death of the Critic reads as a kind of retrenchment. McDonald wants to set before us an account of the history of criticism that will remind us of its value as an activity – in spite of its secondariness – and of the essential decency of the enterprise, its contribution to cultural welfare. He argues for the emergence of a 'new aestheticism', the cultivation of a broader, less partisan approach to the study of literature, “..intimate with the imagining of political possibilities at the level of form.” Post-1968, an overtly politicized theory bent itself to degutting the work of art. Literature was interrogated not as an analyzable entity in its own right, but as the vessel of ideology. The theorists forced upon literature the burden of explaining its deeply distasteful roots in reactionary politics, its blind connivance in post-colonial oppression, its devious trick of covering up its unpleasant associations with tyranny. When Edward Said suggested that Mansfield Park was a novel that bore the taint of the slave trade, the game was up for traditional close textual analysis. Never such innocence again.

So ruthless a desacralization was accompanied by an inevitable decentring. The Benjaminian 'aura' of art devolved to art as a sequence of schematics. More crucially still, we lost the notion that one must accord a novel, poem or play a measure of respect, that a certain delicacy in how we conduct ourselves among the products of the minds of men and women who once drew breath, is appropriate and seemly, at the very least. What characterizes the labours of such critics as Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt through A.C. Bradley and William Empson – aside from their polymathy, their sheer intellectual heft – is perhaps the sense common to them that literature ought to inspire in us – as a condition of its efficacy – a feeling of responsive tact, such as a botanist might experience with the objects of his study. Something akin to what George Steiner termed 'humane literacy' is at issue here. Steiner, predictably in the current climate of mannerless snidery, today earns for himself a deal of derision from the young and not-so-young Turks. But the closing stave of his 1963 essay still seems to me to have a distinct uneasy resonance:

Because the community of traditional values is splintered, because words themselves have been twisted and cheapened, because the classic forms of statement and metaphor are yielding to complex, transitional modes, the art of reading, of true literacy, must be reconstituted. It is the task of literary criticism to help us read as total human beings, by example of precision, fear, and delight. Compared to the act of creation, that task is secondary. But it has never counted more. Without it, creation itself may fall upon silence.

Pilot-fish even the great critics might be, but they are expert navigators nonetheless.

McDonald's Death of the Critic nicely summarizes the 'fortunes of criticism', with an attractive even-handedness. His survey takes in the development of criticism from Aristotle to post-structuralism and beyond, with all points between. In the end, he urges a kind of syncretism – rather than discard the thought of former ages, each phase offers something viable, something usable. McDonald refuses to scout modern literary theory as the sterile fruit of technocracy. Unlike, say, Christopher Ricks, he holds that appreciation and evaluation aren't strictly incompatible with the insights of deconstruction or Lacanian psychoanalysis. The chasm between academe and the public sphere may yet be bridged. “[E]loquence of writing,” McDonald asserts, “accuracy of expression, and the owning of language, should be part of an education in English literature.” Critical prose itself needs to be overhauled and reinvigorated – it must be enlivened by a nearness to felt experience, be receptive to abstraction and sensuous particularity.

In his elegiac essay on Edward Said, 'The Critic as Artist', Tom Paulin observes “The style of literary critics – if we except Hazlitt – is seldom discussed.” (To which one might add, literary critics are seldom discussed, certainly among the ranks of the common readers.) What excites Paulin about Said's criticism – it shapes his own critical practice, too – is its 'performative' aspect, the way it engages bodily, as it were, with the texts under scrutiny. Expressive, wrought with urgency, the drama and textured life of it. Aesthetics and politics interlace; a prose style forged from the psychological lacerations of Palestine's tragic history. In Said's prose personal testament underwrites and energizes the discourse, making it peculiarly fascinating and absorbing. Such must our critic redux stimulate in his own efforts.

McDonald's guarded optimism breathes through his study. Almost wholly absent are the bitter biases of this faction or the other: Northrop Frye is dealt with as respectfully as Roland Barthes. The Death of the Critic proves that rarest of things, an affirmative polemic – learned, sound and an earnest of how literary criticism might prosper once again.


readings i

W.H. Auden – 'Musėe des Beaux Arts'

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
December 1938

Simon Gray in his Smoking Diaries records that he “used to nag away at Ian [Hamilton] about it, 'About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters' – how can you be right or wrong about suffering? And as for the 'Old Masters' – well, the old masters, whoever they were, were young, or anyway alive when they painted their paintings, they weren't being old masters, or masters of anything except the palette to hand, the canvas in front of them – so I would nag away at Ian, hey, what about the horse at the end, scratching its 'innocent' behind against a tree, what would a 'guilty' behind be like?” .. and on, for another page.

Gray's choleric disdain for Auden does come across as faintly absurd, almost hysterical – yet it seems a trace-memory of the patriotic brickbats cast at the poet for leaving Britain at the outbreak of war. It also hints at the charge of dilettantism often pointed at Auden, his fondness for the bold argument-sealing rhetorical flourish, the unearned authority that enabled him to speak, for example, of that 'low, dishonest decade' as if he had greater claim than anyone else to assess it as such. Auden's shabby patrician indifference to the commonsensical reading of the times, of a work of art, appears to scandalise Gray to the point of apoplexy; until he finally harrassed Ian Hamilton into admitting, “Auden stinks!”

In any case the poem belongs loosely to the ekphrasis genre, and – at least to the readers at the time of its composition, who'd been following Auden's career – works, stylistically, on a more discursive, essayistic level than his earlier work; the former with its verbal opaqueness and air of teasing enigma, its debt to Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, and exhortatory note. The register of 'Musée des Beaux Arts' is more that of casually learned disquisition, or something overheard in the Senior Common Room. (Donnish chit-chat, such as Philip Larkin portrays in 'Livings III': “Tonight we dine without the Master/(Nocturnal vapours do not please);/The port goes round so much the faster,/Topics are raised with no less ease...”) Far from signing up to Orwell's advocacy of political quietism for the artist in 'Inside the Whale', Auden experiments in this poem with a medium that is craftily engagé – a coded political commentary, ghosting the lines, and a considered, serious piece on the nature of art and the function of the bystander poet.

The fourth line enacts the image it conveys: scrolling out from the penfold of the stanza, it wanders off, just walks dully along, disrupting the symmetry of the poem's opening, indifferent to the prosodic requirement that it be metrically in keeping with the other lines... The thought itself, simply stated, sets forth the premise of the poem: the 'human position', which is one of incurious self-absorption, immersion in the works and days, blind to the scandal of suffering – or of 'something amazing'. (Note the terminal 'place' has no corresponding rhyme, a flaw that calls to mind the stray thread Islamic artists would leave in carpets, say, so as not blasphemously to presume to emulate God's perfection – out of this almost imperceptible 'crack' in Auden's formal framework, the aesthetic leaks into a brutally indifferent world.)

A commonplace, today, to dismiss Auden as a political naïf. His flight to the States some nine months before the declaration of war tends – not unreasonably - to be interpreted as cowardice – and, by the lights of what Milan Kundera has called 'criminography', we're at our leisure to condemn Auden for it.

The singularity of the birth of Christ and the Crucifixion – the fall of Icarus, too – are firmly lodged in the muck and mire of the material universe. Unobserved they may even be drained of meaning. Auden suggests – in a kind of tenebrous irony – that the aged who are 'reverently, passionately waiting' are themselves mortgaging their spiritual lives to a timeless instant (which may or may have not come) while those innocent of the desire to attend on 'the miraculous birth' are joyously, vitally free. (The 'waiting/skating' rhyme underscores the poem's central antithesis.) For one, paralysis and spiritual stagnation; for the others, blithe velocity and energy. The great topoi of myth and religion rely for their power on the 'reverent' and 'passionate' attention of their clients. Suffering's universality – its democratic licence – almost makes these exemplary tragic myths redundant. The ploughman will endure his own pain, and come to terms with it as he may.

Auden intimates in this poem the marginal quality of art (and religion as a symbolic act) in a period of political turmoil. Yet what Auden really means by 'suffering' seems to me to be ill-defined, perhaps evasive. That oftentimes it goes unnoticed, is true. But being unaware of something doesn't indicate indifference. The phrase “[E]verything turns away..”, enjambed so pointedly as it is, directs it moral thrust beyond the frame of the poem. The eclipse of magic can be countered by a retreat into the safely domestic; but the moral duty to tend to the suffering of others becomes proportionately the greater.

[For Alexander Nemerov's interesting art-historical study of the poem, 'The Flight of Form: Auden, Breugel, and the Turn to Abstraction in the 1940s', click here.]


the industrious biographer

Jonathan Coe - Like a Fiery Elephant

Something worth reminding ourselves of: literary biography really doesn’t have to be the shabby exercise in academic body-snatching that has the purists and snobs grinding their teeth. Without the slightest whiff of formaldehyde and methanol to incriminate them, resurrectionists with spirits touched to finer issues have served the literary great and good to lasting acclaim. We’d be the worse off, as readers, without Holmes’s Coleridge, Holroyd’s Shaw and Ellmann’s Joyce.

It seems often to be assumed that the biographer has no more exalted a motive than prurience, some psychic kink that makes of the effort something no worthier than a stringer from the News of the Screws rifling through celebrity dustbins. If the trade-off is between perfection of the life or of the work, then it is nonetheless fairly legitimate to ask why anyone – any sane, integrated personality - should choose the latter.

Jonathan Coe is a reluctant detective in his biography of Bryan Stanley Johnson, in any case. A novelist by trade (and by instinct – the knotty problem of truth-telling is one that recurs) Coe wonders aloud at points throughout Like a Fiery Elephant: the Story of B.S. Johnson, whether, perhaps, taken all-in-all, he mightn’t have been better off writing a fictionalised account of Johnson’s life. He is also remarkably candid about these misgivings – the biography’s meta-thesis concerns itself with the essential absurdity of pinning down any life in 600 pages, and constant self-questioning accompanies Coe’s otherwise crisp annotations of the Johnson vita.

But how does he fare, our accidental biographer? Coe places great emphasis on – and an almost-allowable credence in – a supernatural encounter Johnson claimed to have had in his early twenties: delivered only obliquely in diary entries and a short story, it appears to have been a theophany of sorts, in which Johnson was in some sense bound to the White Goddess, an enslavement that was to compromise his sexual relations and, Coe suggests, displayed in the suicidal tendencies Johnson was periodically – and terminally – afflicted by. What are we to make of this? Johnson devoured and, one might say, internalised Robert Graves’ mythographical study The White Goddess, with its core conceit of the poet’s devotion to his Muse and his quasi-hieratic role as her suitor and chamberlain. Johnson’s unassailable self-belief in his literary powers clearly needed some basis. If Coe finds himself at a loss to discover it, he admits as much, at least.

I’m half-inclined to suspect that Johnson was fibbing about his brush with the Moon-goddess, the Mother of All Living. A working-class lad from Hammersmith without the bluechip sanction of an Oxbridge education, his eye would have lit on Graves’ remark, “I cannot think of any true poet from Homer onwards who has not independently recorded his experience of her.” A more authoritative imprimatur no writer could ever have asked for.

in their deathtime

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